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Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, by Carmela Ciuraru

Carmela Ciuraru takes a playful look at the history of pen names and the reasons authors use them.

By Ilana Kowarski / July 21, 2011

Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, by Carmela Ciuraru, Harper, 368 pp.

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We often think of writing as a form of self-expression, but how much do words truly reveal about their authors? This question is at the heart of Carmela Ciuraru’s Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, a fascinating investigation of why writers use pen names.

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The book begins with a meditation on the power of naming. “Names are loaded, full of pitfalls and possibilities, and can prove obstacles to
writing...” Ciuraru explains. “A change of name, much like a change of scenery, provides a chance to begin again.”

With skilled research and palpable empathy, Ciuraru chronicles the lives of secretive storytellers - those who wished to communicate without being known. In our tell-all age, such shyness might seem strange, but there was a time when pseudonyms were common.

Many literary giants have disguised their identities - including George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, and O’Henry – and Nom de Plume gives us insight into the men and women behind the masks.

Through well-chosen quotes, Ciuraru lets the authors speak for themselves. By sampling extensively from letters and diaries, she shows the vast gulf that can exist between an author’s identity and his or her persona on the page.

Here is an example. A profile of Alice Sheldon – who wrote science fiction under a male pseudonym – includes Sheldon’s pathetic confession that “I’m fond of a hundred people who no more know ‘me’ than the landscape of Antarctica.” These kinds of quotes flesh out the historical figures Ciuraru describes and help readers understand their motivations.

Though the book overemphasizes scandals and includes some unwarranted speculation, it also includes illuminating details. This is particularly true in the chapter on O’Henry, which describes the incredible steps he took to prevent people from discovering his criminal past. According to Ciuraru, O’Henry wrote letters from jail where he claimed he was working abroad, and – after he was set free – he repeatedly lied during interviews with reporters. And he is not the only pseudonymous writer with something to hide. The Bronte sisters wrote under male names, because – as Charlotte Bronte put it - they “had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” But – as Nom de Plume reveals – pseudonyms can also facilitate honesty. Without fear of retribution, authors like George Eliot felt empowered to express their controversial views on religion and politics. Such ethical complexities are treated thoughtfully by Ciuraru, whose nonjudgmental tone allows readers to come to their own conclusions.

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